DOCTOR WHO AND THE SPACE WAR Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal visits Draconia.

For Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the Target novelizations of Classic Who stories bring utter nostalgia, being from an age when they could be your only way to experience a story again. For anyone not from that era (including your current reviewer), they might seem a relic of a bygone age. Yet, some books hold up well, either through the writing in them or because of how they expand upon the original TV adventure. One that falls into both categories is Doctor Who and the Space War, adapted from the 1973 TV story Frontier in Space by its original author, Malcolm Hulke.

With books like The Cave Monsters behind him, Hulke had proven himself to be one of the better writers of the Target range. Reading The Space War (the last time Target would retitle one of the TV stories), it isn't hard to see why that reputation has persisted with his other adaptations. As with that earlier novelization, Hulke’s turning it into prose allows him to create what is a "writer's cut" version of his original TV story.

Frontier in Space was, on TV, one of the most fleshed-out pieces of world-building found in Classic Who and Hulke expands upon it even more here. Wonder just what happened during that war between Earth and Draconia mentioned throughout the story? Hulke explores some of that out here. Curious about the testy but undeniable friendship between the Earth President and military leader General Williams? Hulke explores that in some depth across the whole of the book, fleshing out what we saw on screen in the performances of Vera Fusek and Michael Hawkins. The worlds of both the Earth Empire and Draconia get further fleshing out, detailing some of the politics going on within their respective empires from the Earth Senate and the Peace Party to Draconian nobility. Elsewhere, minor characters, like the two cargo ship pilots we meet at the start of the story and hand over the Doctor and Jo, have their seemingly incomprehensible actions in the episode one cliffhanger explained away. Even the final scene with the Doctor and the Master, something that was rather underwhelming in how it was presented on TV, gets revisited here and is better for it.

Hulke is also able to fix some of the pacing issues with the story as well. Frontier in Space isn't fondly looked upon by many fans, and I have to confess that I've found a new appreciation for it upon revisiting it on DVD and now Blu-Ray after being similarly unimpressed on an early VHS viewing, something partly down to it being a six-parter and seen to flag in the middle third a bit. On the page, and with only 144 pages to play with, Hulke can streamline things a bit. Gone are sequences such as the inquiry at the Lunar Penal Colony in episode four or in the final installment where the Doctor has to make repairs to a spaceship as it's being pursued by an enemy spacecraft. Instead, Hulke goes about turning his script into an SF equivalent of the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, albeit with the Master and Ogrons in the role of Blofeld and the various agents of SPECTRE. The result is a heck of a read, or listen if you go with the 2008 audiobook reading with a superb Geoffrey Beevers reading Hulke's prose.

Not that Doctor Who and the Space War is a perfect read, of course. Some of Hulke's additions seem silly or even frustrating, such as a frequent parting greeting where one wishes, "May you live a long life and may energy shine on you from a million suns," only for the other person to reply, "And may water, oxygen, and plutonium be found in abundance wherever you land." After a few of those, the whole exchange gets rather tedious, making one wonder if it was cut from the TV version for precisely that reason. Some of Hulke's changes to dialogue are clunky, such as Jo's whole "What cheek,'" speech in front of the Draconian Prince and his father the Emperor that goes on for an entire paragraph on page 102. Hulke also gives away the plot twist of certain baddies turning up partway through the novel as a throwaway gag, rather undermining their big reveal later on. In defense of the latter, they were put on the cover of the VHS release a couple of decades later, so Hulke doesn't commit that inexcusable a sin there. All of which does serve to undermine his work elsewhere in the book, however.

While it might not be on the level of The Cave Monsters, Hulke's work on The Space War still makes it an intriguing read. His "writer's cut" of Frontier in Space takes an underrated TV story and makes it shine, even with some of the mistakes he makes along the way. It's what viewers could have seen on TV in 1973, in an ideal world. And that makes it worth reading, all on its own.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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